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Margaret Goldberg

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project. Follow the Right to Read Project on Twitter.

A Guide to Reading Advocacy. Part I: Connecting the Mainstream Classroom and Special Education

September 10, 2020

A parent might assume, after seeing the special education teacher, specialists, classroom teacher, and principal gathered in the same room to discuss the progress of a single child, that collaboration is focused and ongoing. In truth, the team may not have the opportunity to reconvene until the next legally-required Student Study Team (SST) or Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting.

Many parents are unaware of how little collaboration happens in schools, but the impact of disconnected services is felt by the school specialists, administration, classroom teacher, and even the child. During the school day, a child with an IEP or 504 plan is usually collected from class by a support provider for a certain number of minutes and then returned to class. Contact between the support provider and the classroom teacher may be limited to a nod, a brief whispered conversation, or a quickly jotted note. If the two adults are friendly with one another, they may chat while making photocopies or over a rushed lunch, but it’s rare that they can devote time to aligning their instruction.

A parent meets, year after year, with the special education team and administrators to receive updates on their child’s progress and to revise legal documents. And the classroom teacher, who will be part of those meetings for just one school year, may seem like the least important member of the team. Consequently, many parents focus on the special education team or the school principal in these meetings, underestimating the benefits of forging a relationship with their child’s classroom teacher.

The classroom silo

Every teacher strives for educational equity, but probe a little deeper and you’ll find that most teachers weigh heavily the services provided by special education. We imagine highly-trained professionals working one-on-one or in very small groups delivering targeted instruction. And we dream of providing that support for the students who need but who don’t qualify for those services. We may prioritize children who rely solely on us, assuming that the students who see other adults during the day have their needs taken care of elsewhere.

With so many other children to care for and inadequate opportunities for collaboration, it’s easy for a classroom teacher to let someone else take the lead on a child’s education. Rarely have I, as a classroom teacher, been encouraged to contribute to the IEP goals of my students, to determine or deliver appropriate interventions, or even to co-construct the schedule for services. The line between special and general education is protective, promising legal rights to children on one side of it, but it also discourages classroom teachers from fully involving ourselves in the education of children with special needs.

Is this how things are supposed to be? Of course not.

Nothing about what I’ve described is the way things should be. And there are some wonderfully run schools that operate more collaboratively. But it’s important for parents of children with special needs to be aware that they have a potential ally in the classroom teacher. 

We can be powerful advocates in a dysfunctional system, though we may not know it. Here are some of the ways teachers may choose to help:

What might a teacher choose to do? At what cost? To what benefit?
Observe the instruction a child receives from specialists (speech, occupational therapy, etc.). We can’t be in two places at once, so we may give up a prep period or write sub plans to observe.

If peer observations are not already part of the school culture, we run the risk of potentially awkward interactions.
We may learn: (1) how a child responds in a different context; (2) strategies to bring into classroom instruction; and (3) that the child needs more support than the minutes per week afforded by the IEP, prompting more in-class differentiation or advocacy for more services.
Include special education staff in grade-level planning sessions. The more “cooks in the kitchen,” the longer decisions take. We can align instruction and thoughtful plan modifications.
Log minutes. With so much to manage, logging the times when a child does/doesn’t receive services may feel impossible.

Monitoring the regularity of services can feel like spying and it can be awkward to alert others to an issue with the dosage of interventions.
Services are interrupted for many reasons (absences, assemblies, testing, shortened days, etc.) and if we monitor the dosage a child actually receives, cancelled sessions may be rescheduled.
Follow up on goals. Because others write and monitor a child’s IEP goals, it’s may feel more comfortable or prudent to devote attention to the academic goals of students who don’t have a team of specialists behind them. If goals are low, are not high-leverage, or are not aligned with the classroom instruction, a classroom teacher can push for them to be revised, which may then improve the instruction specialists on staff deliver.
Advise parents. Reserving time to meet can be difficult.

For a general education teacher, providing advice about special education can feel like stepping into someone else’s territory.
A classroom teacher can collect a wealth of information by observing services, logging minutes, monitoring student progress towards IEP goals, and all of this information is likely to help a parent know when it’s time to express gratitude, initiate a meeting, or lodge a complaint.
Advocate to include special education staff in leadership committees. Most educators do not want to serve on a committee after a long day of work, so urging colleagues to volunteer can cause tension. Contributing to the Instructional Leadership Team may influence the professional development and and materials all teachers receive.

Participating in School Site Council will influence how a school’s money is spent and may increase the resources devoted to children who most need them.

For classroom teachers, it’s more comfortable to focus on what happens within our own classroom, rather than extend our attention to the services of special education. But sometimes we can be inspired by curiosity and compassion to take on risks and work that are not required of us … and in doing so we may improve the collaboration of adults across our school, making things better for all children.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables